It’s normal to think that lung disease would mess with your breathing patterns, but some of the symptoms aren’t that obvious.
Does a single flight of stairs make you feel like you ran a marathon? Do you find yourself unable to do daily tasks without needing a catnap? Your cells need oxygen to produce the energy that keeps your motor running. When your lungs aren’t delivering enough oxygen to your body, you start to drag. What’s more, having low energy can start a vicious cycle—fatigue keeps you from exercising, and a lack of exercise makes it harder to keep up your stamina, even for everyday tasks.
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You may think getting long in years automatically means getting short in breath, but that’s not always the case. If your days of breathing easy have suddenly gone away, it may be time for your doctor to give your lungs a listen. “Sometimes [shortness of breath] is from difficulty emptying out the lungs enough and having too much air trapped inside your chest,” says Goodman. Even when getting air out isn’t an issue, ailing lungs can leave you gasping just by not doing their main job: delivering adequate oxygen into your blood.
Did you know your brain uses 15 to 20% of your body’s oxygen supply? Your noggin needs oxygen to keep you thinking straight; if your O2 level tanks because your lungs aren’t delivering the goods, your thoughts can get muddled. “Very low oxygen levels and very high carbon dioxide levels can cause confusion or make a person sleepy,” says Goodman.
Advanced lung disease brings on a multitude of body problems that can make you shed a few pounds unexpectedly. And it’s not always fat you’re losing. “In COPD especially, there can be lots of inflammation throughout the body that causes muscles to lose mass,” says Goodman. It can also be hard to eat much in one sitting if breathing is a struggle when your stomach starts to get full.
A cough that won’t go away—especially if it comes with mucus, blood, or a fever, is cause for concern. It’s especially worrisome if you’re a smoker, since it’s a classic sign of chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Tell your doctor if your cough sticks around for more than 3 weeks, particularly if you’re finding it harder and harder to breathe as time passes.
A hurting chest is a hallmark of heart trouble, but lungs can bring the pain, too. Lungs don’t have pain nerves, says Goodman, but the lining inside your chest does. “Inflammation irritating the lining of the inside of the chest can cause chest pain, called pleuritis,” she says. You might also have muscle strain from coughing, or your pain could be from a collapsed lung. Occasionally, people with large cavities in their lungs can have a cavity that bursts and lets air escape into the chest cavity around the lung, which can cause some pain as well,” says Goodman.
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When it comes to skin, pink is preferable. Red blood cells, the ones carrying oxygen to your tissues, give you a healthy glow. Bluish-grey lips, fingers, and toes are an indication that those parts of your body aren’t getting the oxygen they need. It’s most common for skin discoloration to pop up in late-stage lung disease, says Goodman. “It tends to happen more when people exert themselves, but it can happen at rest as well.”
The classic rasp of wheezing happens when something’s blocking your airways. You could be dealing with the constricted airways of asthma, or it could be emphysema. “Air doesn’t flow out as fast as it should because the air sacs aren’t as elastic and springy as they should be,” says Goodman. Either way, you should see your doctor so she can check out what your lung sounds are saying.